Twenty-five years ago this week, Cecelia Cichan was the only survivor in a plane crash in Michigan that killed the other 154 people on board.
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Only 4 years old when Northwest Airlines Flight 255 exploded in a ball of fire in 1987, Cichan said in her first interview since the horrific ordeal that she still thinks about it every day. Now 29 and married, Cichan tells her story in the yet-to-be-released documentary “Sole Survivor,’’ excerpts of which aired on TODAY Tuesday. The documentary also features other people who survived commercial plane crashes despite long odds.
In the film, Cichan displays a tattoo of a commercial jet on the underside of her left wrist.
“I think about the accident every day,’’ she told the filmmakers. “It’s kind of hard not to think about it. When I look in the mirror, I have visual scars.’’Story: Sole survivor of plane crash making ‘miracle’ recovery
A twitching arm
Cichan suffered a fractured skull, a broken leg and collarbone and third-degree burns covering much of her body in the crash. She somehow survived after the McDonnell Douglas MD 80 bound for Phoenix exploded into a ball of fire shortly after takeoff at 8:46 p.m. from the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Mich., on Aug. 16, 1987. Her mother, Paula, her father, Michael, and her 6-year-old brother, David, were among the fatalities, as the family was returning from a vacation.
She was found among the wreck when a paramedic spotted her twitching arm and heard her moaning as she suffered from serious burns on 30 percent of her body. For the first 24 hours, she remained unidentified before her grandfather confirmed it was her by her chipped front tooth and the purple nail polish her grandmother had painted on her fingernails before the trip.Video: Only survivor thinks about plane crash ‘every day’ (on this page)
The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the crash was most likely caused when the slats and flaps on the plane were not extended because of the crew’s failure to use a pre-flight checklist; there was also a lack of electrical power at the time of takeoff that failed to trigger the warning system. In the aftermath of the crash, the second-deadliest in U.S. history at the time, Cichan was shielded from public view and raised by an aunt and uncle in Birmingham, Ala., after moving from her home of Tempe, Ariz.Story: Lone plane crash survivor’s father: It’s ‘miraculous’
The subject of media scrutiny and public curiosity since her amazing survival, Cichan received numerous gifts from strangers in the aftermath and was featured on magazine covers and even a billboard in Phoenix wishing her well, according to The Arizona Republic. She granted her first interview to the documentary because of the theme of the film.
“This ‘Sole Survivor’ project is more about a group, and that’s why I’m willing to get involved and be part of something bigger,’’ she told the filmmakers.
The director of the documentary, Ky Dickens, told NBC News that all the survivors were somewhat reluctant to speak out of respect to the loss that other families endured, but were aware of why the public is so fascinated with their lives. Cichan has kept in touch with families of the victims over the years, as well as with Lt. John Thiede, the firefighter who rescued her from the smoldering wreck. He met her for the first time as an adult on her wedding day, when she became Cecelia Crocker.
“To see her come down the aisle, my heart, I lost it really,’’ Thiede says in the documentary. “Just to see her in person was something.’’
“I can say that Cecelia is happy, she’s grounded, (and) she’s doing wonderful,’’ Dickens told NBC News. “She’s in a committed relationship.”
After speaking out for the first time, Cichan hopes to resume her private life, according to the documentary filmmakers. On Thursday, there will be a memorial in Romulus, Mich., on the anniversary of the crash, which remains one of the worst disasters in U.S. aviation history.
There is currently a memorial edifice in Romulus listing the names of all of those who perished on that day.
Learn more about the upcoming documentary "Sole Survivor" on the film's website.
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